Users of messaging apps in Tajikistan have had a rollercoaster start to 2018.
Only days after the state telecommunications regulator ordered a block on voice- and video-based exchanges on Viber, one of the most popular apps of its kind in Tajikistan, the program has resumed functioning normally.
The Communications Services Agency, which controls telecommunications services provider Tajiktelecom, from which all other companies are now required to source their data, told Asia-Plus news website that glitches experienced by Viber users were due to a technical fault inside Tajikistan.
“After media reported problems with audio and video messages on Viber, we inspected our lines. It turns out that indeed we had some technical issues, which we have now fixed. You can once again make phone calls on Viber,” a source with the agency told Asia-Plus.
That this is untrue is hardly a matter of any doubt since telecommunications industry insiders were reporting only last week that instructions to block certain functions on Viber were coming directly from the regulator.
Prague-based news website Akhbor, meanwhile, cited an unnamed source as saying that the change of heart was prompted by pressure from Rustam Emomali, the mayor of Dushanbe and the son of the president.
As the website notes, Emomali only three months ago ordered the creation of a channel on Viber through which the general public could get in touch with the city government, so he is hardly likely to want to see the app being squeezed out.
“The partial block on Viber was deemed a block on a channel of communication for the mayor. In other words, blocking Viber was a political error on the part of telecommunications service,” Akhbor’s source said.
While based in Prague, Akhbor often reports accurately on events inside Tajikistan and appears to have well-positioned sources, although these are almost never named.
Communications officials have sought to characterize their recent moves to restrict access to money-saving technology which does away with the need for costly overseas telephone calls as necessary measures to ensure national security. There are strong indications, however, that the real intent is to find new sources of revenue for the government in the form of taxes and for state-run companies in the form of profit.
Tajik officials are never short of fanciful and colorful excuses though.
Before they took aim at Viber, in December, the Communications Services Agency ordered all telecommunications companies to suspend access to next-generation network, or NGN, services, again on security grounds. The technology enabled people to call relatives from abroad at highly advantageous rates and was particularly prized in Tajikistan as it did not require both callers to be online. Internet coverage is very patchy in the regions and speeds there are typically dismal.
But it emerged in early January that the General Prosecutor’s Office began investigating the reasons behind the suspension of NGN services, raising the intriguing prospect of two government entities going toe-to-toe.
But as communications agency representative Avazhon Zainiddinov told RFE/RL’s Tajik language service on January 4, their move against local providers of NGN services was based on concern for people’s health. Zainiddinov claimed connections on NGN lines were so bad that subscribers were spending 10 minutes on the phone instead of just one.
“This was harming subscribers’ health, so it was deemed proper to switch it off,” he said.